Wi-Fi in the land of Qin

Somewhere, the Yellow Emperor is smiling.

Published February 7, 2007 7:30PM (EST)

Four thousand or 5,000 years ago, Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor from whom all Han Chinese people are said to be descended, found himself in a tight spot. He and his army had come to the rescue of Yan Di, the Fiery Emperor, who was losing a battle to the Jiuli clan led by Chiyou and his 80 brothers -- all giants "with skulls as hard as iron, sharp horns, four eyes, six hands and hair growing erect beside their ears."

A lovely coffee-table book, Zou Zongzu's "The Land Within the Passes: A History of Xian," recounts the story thus:

At first Huang Di's troops suffered great losses as Chiyou blew a thick fog from his nostrils so that they could not find their way, but then Huang Di ordered the goddess of wind to blow a wooden figure on a cart so that its outstretched arm always pointed south, and by the use of this "compass cart" he was able to lead his troops out of the fog [and eventually capture and execute Chiyou.]

I was impelled to refresh my recollection of Huang Di's exploits by the conjunction of two news items this morning. The first, passed on by Jottings From the Granite Studio, reports that researchers studying fragments of the famous terra cotta warriors from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di (not to be confused with the Yellow Emperor), near the city of Xian, had been able to determine that the statues of the soldiers and their horses had been made in two different batches, by analyzing pollen residue mixed in with the clay.

The pollen found in the terra cotta warrior sample was mostly from herbaceous plants, such as members of the mustard and cabbage family, the genus of plants that includes sagebrush and wormwood, and the family of flowering plants that includes quinoa, spinach, beets and chard.

But the pollen detected in the terra cotta horse sample mostly came from trees, such as pine, kamala and ginkgo.

The significance? The builders of the figures may have chosen to make the horses in a location closer to the tomb than where the soldiers were made, for the sensible reason that they did not want to have to move the heavier figures any farther than they had to. This may not seem like a breathtaking archaeological revelation to everyone, but for a history geek, this kind of granular analysis of events that occurred a couple of thousand years ago is highly titillating.

The second, passed on by Pacific Epoch, notes briefly that Xian is about to be fitted with an extensive Wi-Fi network including thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots scattered about the city.

My first impulse was to think, neat, now the citizens of Xian will be able to log on from anywhere in the city and discuss the latest archaeological findings on pollen from the days of Qin Shi Huang Di to their heart's content. Such is progress! But my next thought was to retrieve "The Land Within the Passes" from my bookshelf, and remind myself exactly what those terra cotta warriors, and the vicinity of Xian, look like. It's all too easy in the blogosphere to skate across the surface of history at the speed of a million mouse clicks, without ever taking time to submerge in its depths.

Which is how I came to remind myself that the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang Di is not the only famous tomb in the region. Shaanxi Province is also reputed to be the resting place of Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor who preceded Qin Shi Huang Di, the so-called First Emperor of China, by at least a couple of thousand years.

(The first Huang Di may not originally have been from Shaanxi, and the location of his tomb may have more to do with the latter-day primacy of Xian as the center of successive Chinese dynasties than anything else, but let's not worry overmuch about the actual physical whereabouts of a mythical figure.)

According to legend, Huang Di was responsible for a host of inventions in addition to the compass. He's also given credit for the creation of the Chinese calendar and the first compilation of Chinese medical lore. His wife gets props for teaching the Chinese to weave silk and his historian for creating the Chinese writing system.

Huang Di was what we could call today "a serial innovator." And if he were alive today, no doubt he would be setting up Wi-Fi networks across the length and breadth of China, and pouring imperial resources into nanotechnological research while using the awesome power of the state to encourage the development of the semiconductor industry. All to make it easier for his descendants to ponder the significance of 2,000-year-old pollen.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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